Connecticut town erects statue for Medal of Honor winner

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Statue of  MOH Homer L.Wise and sculptor Janice Mauro
It has been nearly 68 years since Army Sgt. Homer L. Wise, possibly the only Medal of Honor winner from Baton Rouge, performed his remarkable act of heroism, and almost 38 years since he died. Yet, in his adopted hometown, a new honor is coming his way.

A statue of Wise is nearly completed and will be erected later this year in Stamford, Conn., said James L. Vlasto, who chairs the committee that seeks to preserve the memory of Wise’s gallantry during World War II.

“Some people, believe me, don’t know what the Medal of Honor is,” Vlasto said from his home in New York City. “I run across it all the time.”

Wise was born on Feb. 27, 1917, in Baton Rouge and grew up in the Central area, the oldest of five children of William Tony Wise and Edna Stephens Wise.

He did not finish school, but, at age 14 and with the Great Depression in full swing, sought work in Texas before returning to Baton Rouge and enlisting in the Army in 1941.

While stationed at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod, Mass., in 1942, Wise met Madolyn DiSesa, of Stamford. They became engaged before Wise went overseas, first in North Africa, then into combat at Salerno, Italy. He was known as “Blackie” to the men of Company L, 142nd Infantry Regiment. The actions on June 14, 1944, near Magliano, Italy, that earned him the American military’s highest award for heroism are described in the medal citation:

“While his platoon was pinned down by enemy small-arms fire from both flanks, he left his position of comparative safety and assisted in carrying 1 of his men, who had been seriously wounded and who lay in an exposed position, to a point where he could receive medical attention. The advance of the platoon was resumed but was again stopped by enemy frontal fire. A German officer and 2 enlisted men, armed with automatic weapons, threatened the right flank.

“Fearlessly exposing himself, he moved to a position from which he killed all 3 with his submachinegun. Returning to his squad, he obtained an M1 rifle and several antitank grenades, then took up a position from which he delivered accurate fire on the enemy holding up the advance. As the battalion moved forward it was again stopped by enemy frontal and flanking fire. He procured an automatic rifle and, advancing ahead of his men, neutralized an enemy machinegun with his fire.

“When the flanking fire became more intense he ran to a nearby tank and exposing himself on the turret, restored a jammed machinegun to operating efficiency and used it so effectively that the enemy fire from an adjacent ridge was materially reduced thus permitting the battalion to occupy its objective.”

Wise received the Medal of Honor on Nov. 28, 1944, by which time he also had earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.

Two months later, Wise was honored in Baton Rouge with a banquet held by the labor union to which he belonged, and Wise rode on horseback in the Baton Rouge March of Dimes Parade on Jan. 27, 1945. On Feb. 12, he married DiSesa, and they settled in Stamford. Wise was honorably discharged six months later, but re-enlisted in the Army in 1947, retiring in 1966.

Wise was one of six honorary pallbearers when the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery in 1958. Otherwise, Vlasto said, Wise drew little attention to his heroism. His only child, Jeffrey, only found out about his father’s Medal of Honor at age 12 when a friend told him.
“He was just a really regular, down-to-earth kind of guy,” said Jean Rinaldi, Wise’s niece. “Hero wasn’t a word you would have thought of, because nothing like that was ever implied. … He was just a great guy.”
After retiring, Wise supplemented his income as a waiter.

“There are a number of stories of people recognizing him in the restaurant and demanding to the owner of the restaurant that Homer sit with them instead of wait on them,” Vlasto said.

Wise died of congestive heart failure at age 57 on April 22, 1974, and two years later Stamford named a park in his memory. Jeffrey died in 1990, Madolyn in 2002.

“When I would go up to visit, I always would stop at the park, and over the years just kept shaking my head and I said, ‘This is not good enough,’ ” Vlasto said. “It was a nice little park in a fine residential area, but it was not up to the caliber of a memorial to this great soldier.”

In 2004, Vlasto started pursuing the idea in earnest. He has raised about $63,000 and hired sculptor Janice Mauro, of Redding, Conn., to create the larger than life-size bronze statue. A base for the statue must be built before it can be erected, Vlasto said. No date has been set for erecting the statue.

Vlasto has had little luck finding Wise’s blood relatives. At least three of his siblings — brothers Edward and Leon, and sister Gracie Pipes — are deceased, and Vlasto doesn’t know the whereabouts of his other brother, Robert.

Regardless, Vlasto thinks the effort is worth it to remind current and future generations of the extraordinary heroism of Medal of Honor winners. Of the 16 million American men and women in uniform in World War II, only 464 received this honor, 266 of them posthumously.

“That’s why soldiers like Homer Wise are extraordinary in my mind,” Vlasto said.

Louis “Woody” Jenkins, editor of the Central City News, said he has been in touch with Mauro to explore the possibility of making a statue for Central. Jenkins said that when he gets a cost estimate from Mauro, he’ll see if there is enough community support for such a project.

Wise is the only Medal of Honor recipient known to have been born in Baton Rouge. There are conflicting accounts of whether cavalry Sgt. Thomas Shaw, who was awarded the medal during the Indian Wars of the late 1800s, entered service in Baton Rouge or in Pike County, Mo. Union Maj. John C. Curtis of the 9th Connecticut Infantry received the medal for his actions in the Battle of Baton Rouge on Aug. 5. 1862.

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Copyright 2011 The Homer L. Wise Memorial Committee, Inc.